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Abbott Signs Bill to Speed Permits, Limit Protests

Gov. Greg Abbott has signed legislation aiming to quicken regulators' pace of cranking out permits for major industrial projects by limiting public scrutiny.

This flue gas scrubber, installed at a Valero refinery in Houston in 2006, reduces emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter.

Gov. Greg Abbott has signed legislation aiming to quicken regulators' pace of cranking out permits for major industrial projects by limiting public scrutiny — another victory for a wide range of industries and a blow to consumer and environmental advocates.

Senate Bill 709, which will now become law Sept. 1, is intended to scale back contested-case hearings, a process that allows the public to challenge industrial applications for permits at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), such as those allowing wastewater discharges or air pollution emissions.

Led by state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and state Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, supporters argued that Texas’ current slow-moving bureaucracy was driving would-be employers into Louisiana and other neighboring states, and that the legislation – signed on Saturday – would give them more certainty here.

“We’re losing a lot of jobs to surrounding states,” Fraser said in April. “This is clearly for economic development.”

But critics are worried that limiting the process would stifle what little voice everyday Texans have when manufacturers, chemical plants, landfills and other high-polluting businesses set up shop in their communities. 

“The polluter lobbyists said they want Texas to have regulations weaker than Louisiana’s, and we’ll end up with Louisiana’s problems: cancer, birth defects, developmental disorders in children, and the collapse of agriculture and commercial fishing,” Robin Schneider, executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, said Sunday in a statement.

Contested-case hearings resemble trials in which companies and their critics present evidence and testimony in front of an administrative law judge in hopes of swaying regulators, who have the final say in granting, denying or modifying a permit application. For particularly complicated industrial projects, the process can yield information that the short-staffed TCEQ did not foresee.

Protesters rarely persuade regulators or a company to withdraw a permit application, but veterans of the process say they often win concessions that shrink a plant or landfill’s effects on the community. 

Though less than 1 percent of TCEQ permit applications involve such hearings, industry groups say the process takes too long – sometimes years – and breeds uncertainty that prompts businesses to move elsewhere. 

The law, which takes effect Sept. 1, overhauls the hearings process in a variety of ways. It gives the TCEQ sole discretion to determine who is an “affected person” who could ask for a hearing; sets an 180-day time limit for the proceedings (with potential exceptions); narrows the issues the public could argue; and arguably shifts the burden of proof from the company to the public.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has called the changes problematic, and opponents argued that the new rules could prompt the agency to assert its control over the permits Texas currently doles out.

As it has in other states over the past four decades, the EPA has given Texas the authority to permit and enforce a variety of air, waste, water and mining programs after lengthy and complex negotiations.

“EPA is concerned that as currently drafted, [the legislation] could be read to impact the applicability of federal requirements to federal permitting programs being implemented by the TCEQ,” David Gray, director of external affairs for the EPA’s Dallas-based regional office, recently wrote to state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, who had asked for input.

Fraser and Morrison have said that they aren’t worried about an EPA review.

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Energy Environment Politics State government Geanie W. Morrison Governor's Office Greg Abbott